Sunday, November 8, 2009

Challenges Facing the Hellenic Armed Forces

Part IIIA – Air Force

The Hellenic Air Force is Greece’s most active deterrent against what is perceived to be a growing threat from Turkey. Turkish fighter aircraft violate Greek sovereign air space on a daily basis which must be answered by the Greek Air Force. There are debates over what constitutes Greek air space, with Greece claiming 10 nautical miles from its shores and Turkey only recognising 6 nautical miles. In this framework Turkey portrays her military flights as actions that make use of international air space. However, on numerous occasions Turkish fighters overfly Greek soil, thereby voiding the debate of 10 miles vs. 6 miles altogether. Instead, the over flights of Greek islands, together with the “simple” violations, are part of Turkey’s policy of not recognising Greek sovereignty over numerous islands in the Aegean.

Essentially, the Greek Air Force faces a daily double challenge. On the one hand the Air Force must use its assets and train its personnel for a possible armed conflict with Turkey. Seeing how the Turkish Air Force is numerically superior the Greek side must utilise all its assets to the fullest. However, the daily air space violations by Turkey also means that there always have to be a sufficient number of armed aircraft and crews available to counter this threat. This detracts from training schedules, putting an even greater strain on equipment and personnel. In essence, there already is a low intensity conflict happening which in the past has resulted in accidents and even deaths.

Currently the Greek Air Force enjoys a technological advantage over its Turkish rival, mainly through the proper planning and execution of acquisition programmes. Examples are the recent introduction into service of the EMB-145H Erieye Airborne Early Warning aircraft, the purchase of a total of 90 F-16 Block 52 fighters (in two variants), the purchase of 15 new Mirage 2000-5 aircraft and the upgrade of 10 existing aircraft to the new standard. An older decision which today provides a good deterrent was the acquisition of 6 Patriot Surface to Air Missile Batteries.

Things are not standing still on the other side of the Aegean either. Turkey has several programmes in progress which will provide a significant challenge for the Greek side. The Greek Air Force will have to find answers on how to tackle a stronger Turkish Air Force, which currently is the main form of expression of Turkish revisionism regarding Greek sovereignty.

New Fighter Programme

The new fighter programme is one which is already considered long overdue. With the need to maintain 300 combat aircraft at the ready the Greek Air Force must take delivery of roughly 10 aircraft per year on average. This means that 100 new fighters must be purchased every decade. When compared to the size of the population of Greece, the Greek Air Force is one of the largest in the world. The comparative amount of taxpayer’s money spent on fighter aircraft is huge and the money must be spent wisely.

Contenders for the new programme are the Eurofighter Typhoon, the Dassault Rafale, the Lockheed F-16 and JSF and the Boeing F-18E. The SAAB Grippen is also a contender although it is considered an outsider. As with every major Greek weapons acquisition, politics play a key role. The government will use the multi billion euro acquisition to gain favour with governments it needs in order to advance its own policies.

From an operational perspective, the current choice facing the Air Force is probably the hardest one ever. The reason for this is the fact that Turkey already appears committed to acquire 100 to 120 F-35 Joint Strike Fighters (JSF) which incorporate low observability technology. There has been much debate over how “invisible” to radar the F-35 will be and whether export partners (like Turkey) will receive a fully capable or downgraded aircraft. As a result, the Air Force will have to select a fighter capable of detecting and combating the Turkish F-35s. Much of the information regarding capabilities of aircraft in this respect is classified. The Greek Air Force has been briefed by several manufacturers regarding their products but the results of these briefings are a cause for speculation. Regardless of what information the Greek Air Force does have about the various aircraft the choice remains a difficult one.

One more complicating factor is the fact that the last batch of 30 aircraft ordered (F-16 Block 52M) are not enough to sufficiently equip two full squadrons. An option for a further 10 aircraft was never exercised. It is possible that another 10 to 15 F-16 similar to the last ones will be ordered to supplement the batch of 30 and that 40 new aircraft of a different, more advanced type will be ordered. Currently it is all speculation and the recent change of government also means that all acquisition programmes will be re-evaluated from the ground up.

The new fighter programme currently seems to balance between two schools of thought. On one side some consider that the decision is already long overdue and that at this rate the Air Force will not be able to maintain its force requirement of 300 front line fighters. On the other hand, some believe that it would be wise to wait and see on how many promises the F-35 can deliver. Meanwhile we should only upgrade existing fighters and decide on a new one once we have seen the abilities of the F-35 for what they are. This last option is a dangerous one, as it can potentially give the Turkish Air Force a first strike option which Greece will have little or no defence against.

The final Part IIIB to come soon.

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